Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

Barthelme’s improvisation in this instance creates a typically divided piece: It is as much about the conventions of narrative fiction as it is about life, and thus it balances the ordered and chaotic, the recognizable and confusing, and the tragic and comic in an attempt both to attract and to...

(The entire section contains 1263 words.)

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Barthelme’s improvisation in this instance creates a typically divided piece: It is as much about the conventions of narrative fiction as it is about life, and thus it balances the ordered and chaotic, the recognizable and confusing, and the tragic and comic in an attempt both to attract and to repel the reader. The story appeared during the height of the antiwar turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War (late in the story the helicopters kill “a great many in the south,” though that is the section still held by the city’s forces); guerrilla warfare and memories of ghetto riots in Newark, Harlem, and Watts were fresh in the minds of everyone.

The primary issue in “The Indian Uprising” is cultural crisis both as a fact and as a literary problem. If art grows from culture, what in American culture seems to value and foster art? The first-person narrator could not say, for he seems untouched by his own sophistication—he is vicious, complacent, amoral, and self-deluded. Here Barthelme seems to offer a genuine prophetic impulse, a desire to give a warning about the chaos of this life of replaceable partners and disposable, “merely personal emotions,” and the dangers of a culture that worships cold pragmatism, chooses its heroes from among its generals and admirals, and uses its technology to make war on peasants and children. Moreover, questions about what, in a social context, is “a good life,” of what use knowledge is in finding such a life, and what effect art has in modifying humankind’s savage instincts cast a strong shadow over the narrative.

Barthelme’s humor, however, especially his mocking echoes of heavily shadowed works by Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, and even William Shakespeare, should make any interpreter beware. The narrator, after all, cannot with complete fairness be thought of as a “person.” The same might be said of the other characters, so fragmented and chameleonlike do they come to the reader. Above all, Barthelme is a comic writer; the first-person narrator does not control the arrangement or sequence of details, but is rather controlled throughout by Barthelme’s virtuosity.

Thus any discussion of ideas in Barthelme’s fiction runs into the issue of his skepticism about ideas and systems. There is no commitment in his fiction, no affirmation of particular truths, and for some readers this makes Barthelme a less than major writer. His portrayal of a confused world of insatiable egos, each pursuing material goals that look unmistakably like junk when realized, suggests a pessimism that the comic impulse does not hide. However, there is also a sense of the paradoxical in this story, that the imagination (not the narrator’s, but the author’s, and presumably the readers’ in turn) continues to supply wonderful responses to experience. “The Indian Uprising” shows such a response and hints at morality even if the argument cannot be logically and systematically presented.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778

Male-Female Relationships
There are no successful relationships between men and women in Barthelme’s short story, even between the narrator and his girlfriend Sylvia. The ground between men and women in the story re- flects the ongoing battle between the Comanches and the narrator’s troops.

Twice the narrator indicates that he is ‘‘getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love,’’ indicating a certain amount of pain surrounding his feelings for Sylvia. In another scene, Block quickly assures the narrator that Sylvia is not in love with Kenneth, highlighting the narrator’s anxiety over his and Sylvia’s relationship. Sylvia is shown, ultimately, as a deceptive woman, lying to him about which side in the battle she has chosen. When the narrator remembers lying in bed with her at the story’s end, he winces over ‘‘the sickness of the quarrel’’ he has had with her, and his fingers touch ‘‘white, raised scars’’ on her back, calling up images of violence and pain.

The narrator’s relationships with other women in the story are also failures. He has lived with a number of women—at least four in addition to Sylvia—indicating that he has had difficulty staying in a relationship. Even his relationship with Miss R. is fraught with pain and anxiety. When he seeks her out for help with an unnamed problem, she belittles and shames him. He responds with passivity and silence. In the end, Miss R. betrays him by assisting with his imprisonment.

The story opens and closes with impressions of violence achieved and violence to come, and throughout the text there are glimpses of brutality. The characters never remark upon or even notice the violence, as if it has become a normal way of life— possibly an authorial comment on the constant presence of violence in American society and the limited value words have against violence and in accurately describing violence. The war motif in the story has prompted critics to consider whether Barthelme’s story refers to the violence of the Vietnam War, the antiwar demonstrations that were frequently turning American streets into battlegrounds, or the nation’s long history of violence against Native Americans.

At the story’s start, the narrator is busy torturing a captured Comanche by tilting his head back and pouring water into his nostrils. In response, the Comanche’s ‘‘body jerked, [and] he choked and wept.’’ Later, the Comanche is forced to speak when the narrator’s troops place electrodes on his genitals. During neither torture scene does the narrator, or anyone else, note what is happening. In fact, the narrator’s mind habitually wanders off to another place and time.

When the narrator admits that his troops have killed children, he finishes the thought by noting that ‘‘more came from the north and from the east and from other places where there are children preparing to live.’’ This flat and emotionless reference to the deaths of many children and to the fact that many more were coming to replace the dead reflects the narrator’s lack of sorrow. The narrator nearly has an emotional response to a quarrel with Sylvia, but when he takes notice of the scars on her back, he does not express concern or explain their source. His casualness about the scars and the previous torture scenes suggest that the narrator is a man who lives comfortably with violence.

The world in Barthelme’s story is filled with deception and lies, and the surface images of things and people often do not accurately reflect what lies beneath. This creates an atmosphere of disorder and confusion in the story and contributes to the story’s plotless and nonlinear narrative. There are surprises around almost every corner, but they are surprises that disturb rather than delight.

Sylvia and Miss R. betray the narrator, and ‘‘girls hid Comanches in their rooms.’’ When the captured Comanche is tortured, he says that his name is Gustave Aschenbach and that he is from a town in Silesia, a region spanning the Czech Republic and Poland—a rather odd name and origin for an American Indian. A friend’s blue coat turns into a hiding place from which a Comanche jumps out and stabs the narrator’s leg. A hospital uses a treatment ‘‘the worth of which was not quite established.’’ Tables are actually hollow-core doors with wrought iron legs attached, barricades are made up of everyday items, such as a flute or a bottle of vodka, and a friend has an affair with a married man. The deception in the story creates a world in which most things have lost their normal meaning.

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